Saturday, July 16, 2011

Here's to "The King of Comedy"

I never could quite empathize Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta, and I don't feel I ever understood what was driving Travis Bickle. Rupert Pupkin, however, I understand. Pupkin, an autograph hound and wannabe comedian at the center of Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy," is immediately familiar. I know guys like that, the obsessives who are so fixated on one goal, and one particular path to that goal, they lose all reason and perspective. I've also known women like his cohort Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard, desperately in love with a man she doesn't know except from the television. Both characters are obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford, who is clearly meant to be Johnny Carson, but is played here by Jerry Lewis.

In the opening scenes you might think that Rupert Pupkin is simply an opportunist, who finagles his way into Langford's car in order to further his own career as a stand-up comic. He's charming and eloquent enough that you can believe he might have real prospects. After Pupkin departs, the scene cuts to a bar where Langford and Pupkin are having a drink together some years in the future. Just as we learn Pupkin's career is in ascendancy while Langford's is in decline, it's revealed that this meeting is taking place entirely in Pupkin's imagination. His fantasies are riddled throughout the film, and incorporated so well into the story that it sometimes takes a minute or two to figure out whether something really happening or only playing out in Pupkin's head. In a few key scenes the truth remains ambiguous, or perhaps the two versions of Pupkin's life have simply merged. However, when reality and fantasy diverge too much, you can feel Pupkin's building frustration and growing psychosis. The audience comes to realize that Pupkin is no simple schmoozer, no overeager nerd, no especially rude fan - but a dangerous madman. In another director's hands, this material could have come off very different, but Scorsese gives it a real physicality and menace.

And yet, you can't help but feel for Rupert Pupkin. Of Robert DeNiro characters, he is among the most earnest and sincere. It's not hard to see why the girl of his dreams, a local bartender named Rita (Diahne Abbott), still gives him the time of day even after being burned. As Pupkin, DeNiro hardly ever gets upset, never raises his voice (except to an offscreen mother), and is good at remaining calm even as those around him become increasingly outraged or emotional. He can talk his way into and out of many situations, simply by sticking to his own version of events, the reality he wants to be true. However, when push comes to shove, he is unable to take no for an answer. Despite what occurs at the end of "King of Comedy," Pupkin is not a particularly violent character, but we know the capability for violence is there, in every moment of nervousness and uncertainty. DeNiro manages to play it close and broad at the same time, because Pupkin is desperate to maintain a certain facade and a certain image - and he's a pretty good actor. You have to look close to get a glimpse of the real man beneath, who may not be who you're expecting. This may be my favorite of DeNiro's performances, for maintaining this juggling act so well.

The other big showstopper of "King of Comedy" is Jerry Lewis as a beloved celebrity suffering an excess of attention. Beset by crazed fans at every turn, paranoid, stressed, and miserable, Jerry Langford suffers every downside to fame, and is on a perfect slow burn through most of the movie. Lewis is almost as scary as DeNiro in some scenes, especially when he goes quiet and you realize Langford is coming to the end of his rope as quickly as Pupkin is. It must have been deeply disturbing for audiences in 1983 to see Jerry Lewis, famous funnyman, deliver such a cold and piercing dramatic performance. He's so good, you have to wonder at times if you're looking at the real Jerry Lewis, rather than a character who shares a similar name. Comedian Sandra Bernhard also does nothing remotely comedic with Masha, Pupkin's fellow Langford stalker and occasional ally. She doesn't have nearly as much time onscreen as her male co-stars, but boy does she throw herself into her role with vicious abandon. The film could have easily been centered around her instead of Pupkin.

Undeniably, the performances are the main event, but I love the look of "King of Comedy." It takes place in a world of 60s and 70s television kitsch, with the blocky set designs and slightly garish fashions, juxtaposed with the monochrome concrete and asphalt of New York. I've never seen anyone else use video and film stock together quite as well as Scorsese does here, highlighting the unreal, slightly warped quality of television images from the age before LCD screens and high definition. His transitions are just beautiful, taking us from fantasy to reality, from film to video, from a television set to a facsimile of a set to a fantasy of a set, and daring the viewer to figure out where the boundaries are. Any fans of "Shutter Island" who thought that film was a mind trip, it's nothing compared to what's going on here.

I'm surprised that "King of Comedy" did so poorly upon its initial release. Maybe it was too far ahead of its time, with its stark treatment of celebrity mania and the distorting powers of the media. Maybe unwary audience members who went to a Jerry Lewis film titled "The King of Comedy" were expecting some laughs which never came. Conversely, the advertising for the film makes it seem like more of a crime film than it is. In actuality, "King of Comedy" is a little thriller, a little satire, a lot of character study, and just brilliant all around. It's one of the best Scorsese films, and I think it's held up far better than many of his other, more famous pictures. Like Rupert Pupkin, it has been overlooked, but that doesn't mean it isn't worthy of the spotlight.
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What I've Seen - Martin Scorsese (1990)

Mean Streets (1973)
Alice doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)
Taxi Driver (1976)
New York, New York (1977)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Raging Bull (1980)
The King of Comedy (1982)
After Hours (1985)
The color of Money (1986)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Goodfellas (1990)
The Age of Innocence (1993)
Casino (1995)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Aviator (2004)
The Departed (2006)
Shutter Island (2010)
Hugo (2011)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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